Wednesday, May 30, 2012

FDG 2012 Day 1

I am in Raleigh, NC, for the Foundations of Digital Games conference. This is my first time at this conference and my first time in Raleigh. Both have been great so far. Despite having been working in the "games" sphere for the last few years, this was my first time at an explicitly games-related conference. I have been presenting my work at general conferences like CCSC:MW or at conferences with other domain focuses like SIGCSE and DESRIST.

I arrived yesterday late afternoon and, since I was in no rush and had done my research, I took the bus from the airport to downtown. It was $2 well spent, and a nice way to get a look around the city. A few people have reacted with incredulity about my having taken the bus, but it was a good learning opportunity.

Let me zoom in on that a bit for you:

In English, you are "elderly," not "a person of advanced age," though in Spanish, you are "una persona de edad avanzada"—certainly not viejo! Yet, in English, you are not "disabled," you are "a person with disabilities," while in Spanish, you are simply "incapacitada." Language is fascinating!

I found the hotel, dropped off my bags, and went exploring downtown. I ended up outside a restaurant called "Mecca," which from the name I assumed would be some kind of Mediterranean place. Turns out it was more of an American diner, but the staff were helpful and the cheeseburger was great. I asked about local beers and had one of these:


Very nice indeed, and it's made right in Raleigh.

After walking around downtown, I explored the hotel to see the spaces we'd be in today. There were workshops yesterday and their signs were still up. As I walked around, I noticed that one of the rooms was open for a reception, which I had never even noticed on the schedule. I had a free glass of cabernet and met some nice gentlemen from Portugal and the Netherlands before retiring to my room for the night.

During the welcoming address, the conference chair pointed out that the proceedings were hiding inside the pens in our conference bags. Let's take a look...

Ooh, handsome. So, if I twist the right side, I should get a writing implement...

See the difference? When I twist the bottom side of the pen, I get a writing nib the size of a tsetse fly. Additionally, when I exert any pressure on that nib—for example, as one might apply when writing—it scuttles back into its protective shell. Convenient! I shall never have to worry about this pen running out of ink! I can only hope that mine is broken. Anyway, you can still unscrew (and unscrew and unscrew) the back to reveal the USB connector and get your proceedings from there.
I guess when you're done, you screw it all back together again so that... your pen doesn't get lonely? I'm sure there's a lesson here about ideas vs. execution. Memo to myself: USB sticks alone are sufficient.

The morning keynote address was worth the price of admission. The speaker was Jonas Linderoth, who presented an overview of his ecological approach to game analysis. He has a doctorate in pedagogy, and he is clearly and explicitly dubious of unsubstantiated claims regarding games and learning. Specifically, he is looking at well-studied educational principles such as transfer and their absence amid the cries about games' potential for transforming education. He nailed several points that have been bothering me for the last few years, and I'm eager to read his research. I believe he said he is working on a book that presents his theory, and if so, I'll be first in line. Regular readers will know that I love Koster's Theory of Fun, but I've been aching for something more research-based.

After the keynote was the first paper session, which had four papers. I really think four is too many to digest, as an attendee. Four papers is especially too many when half the presenters are reading bullet points off of PowerPoint slides. Attention everyone with doctoral students: Step 1, learn to deliver good presentations. Step 2, teach your students. Step 3, make them practice. Step 4, only after completing the other steps, allow them to present at conferences. 

But I digress. The content was mostly interesting. Enjoyable research overall, despite some bad infographics and conclusions far exceeding actual results. These are the kinds of things I hammer when I am a reviewer; perhaps I shall volunteer to review for this conference next year.

Lunch was a gyro from the place right next to the hotel because it was raining. It was quite good.

I gave my talk in the afternoon, based on the entity system architecture of Morgan's Raid. I finished my prepared remarks with time to spare so there would be plenty of time for discussion. There were some good technical questions, but I am most excited about the people who asked about the environment: the students, the curriculum, the objectives. To me, this is a good sign that people are excited about the idea of studio learning environments and giving students authentic learning experiences through game development. After the formal presentation slot, one of the other presenters asked me about grading, and I had to pause for moment to remember how I graded them at all. I'm glad he asked, because that reminds me that I need to come up with a better way for this Fall.

The young man presenting after me was the lead developer of Gear2D, a component-based game engine. I challenged him a bit on the problem of creating an engine rather than a game. As I told him, the best advice I heard (on I think, back when I checked it daily) was, "When you think you want to make a game engine, make a game instead. Then make another game. Then make another game. The stuff you used all three times is your game engine." He took this criticism well, and talked about some of the ongoing work to build applications atop Gear2D. Later I found out he's an undergraduate, so props to him for writing a paper, having it accepted, and coming all the way from Brazil to listen to my comments. Seriously, nicely done.

At a conference where I don't know anybody, I love presenting early in the conference. During the rest of the conference, I met several people who were at my session and their colleagues. If I didn't have such a refined sense of morals, I'd start lying about having to leave every conference early just so I could be put early in the schedule.

There was a panel on Twitter as a platform for game development. Each of the panelists had interesting things to say, but there were hardly any questions from the audience. I admit curiosity about Twitter, but I don't use it. There were some interesting word/language games described, but as the panelists admitted, they weren't really dependent on Twitter's unique ecosystem, and some have been translated to generic text interfaces. I understand that there is a culture around Twitter involving retweets and followers, an unspoken etiquette that one must understand or be doomed to the lower echelons of twitterati. It seemed that the games that reflected this yielded the most interesting game design ideas, because they involved serious real-world risks.

David Molyneaux from Microsoft Research spoke about Kinect Fusion, an incredible application of Kinect hardware with advanced image processing to do real-time 3D reconstruction of scenes. It was mindblowing. Fortunately, you can search YouTube for "Kinect Fusion" and find a lot of the highlights. Seriously, check it out.

A special session was added for Leslie Redd, Valve's Director of Educational Programs (or whatever you want to call her in a company with no titles). They're working a "Steam for Schools" as a way to get Portal 2 Puzzle Maker into schools. A few teachers are designing lesson plans and curricula for math and physics based on beta testing. You can get a sense of it from the video about the Evergreen School field trip to Valve. More information is available at It's great to see Valve reaching out to help schools, and Redd admitted that their biggest hurdles were not technical but rather dealing with administrators and, even moreso, IT departments.

At this point, I considered finding some of my newly-made friends to see if they wanted to get dinner, but a quick self-evaluation made me realize I was completely exhausted and needing my introvert time. So, I went exploring the city again, this time stopping at Dickey's BBQ. One bite in, and I knew I needed to capture the moment.

Amazing pork BBQ sandwich, accented with an authentic Carolina-style, vinegar-based BBQ sauce. On the right is the Dickey's sauce, which is a more conventional tomato-based sauce. Also good, but the Carolina-style really hit home, perhaps because it was reminiscent of Chiavetta's. The fried okra were perfectly seasoned, with a black pepper kick. The Brunswick stew was out of this world. Bad Penny was good enough for a repeat as well... especially since the other choices were Bud and Bud Lite.

Afterwards I did some more walking and discovered a nice park and a few more eateries I'd love to try. Then I remembered that I wouldn't have time for them. Next time, Raleigh. Also, after Dickey's, I probably should not eat again for a few days.

When I returned to the hotel, I saw a group of four of the nicest gents I'd met at the conference, and in fact, one had just left a message for me to see if I wanted to join them for dinner. So very kind of them, but at this point, I was stuffed, exhausted, and really wanted to write down my thoughts from the day. So, in case one of you is reading this, thanks again, and next time I will surely take you up on it.

Sometimes my family will travel with me to conferences, but this time I am traveling alone. One of my favorite parts of traveling by myself is that, usually, my wife will sneak little notes into my bag. This is really nice, and you, dear reader, should do this for your own spouse or significant other. However, this was the first conference where I also had notes from my son:

What a guy! I suspect my wife put him up to it, but that doesn't take away from the warm fuzzies it brings me.

Tomorrow's another full day. No promises on whether I'll have the energy for another comprehensive post, but I really wanted to capture my first impressions of the conference. In case I don't have a follow-up, I'll take the opportunity now to post a public "thank you" to all the conference organizers.

1 comment:

  1. For the record: The morning I offered Alex the opportunity to write Dad a few notes for his suitcase, he eagerly took pen and paper and composed his own messages, only seeking occasional spelling assistance from me.

    We'll work on espionage skills next, as sneaking the notes into the suitcase was a daunting task. "Do the notes have to be secret? Can't I just give them to Dad? He's going to read them anyway." He seemed relieved that, because the notes were folded in quarters, they'd still be surprises.